Hurricane Irma’s Impact in the Caribbean

Irma has been downgraded to a tropical storm as continues to bring rain and wind to the southern United States. In the Caribbean, territories and countries are beginning to assess the devastation caused by the strongest recorded Atlantic hurricane.

Saint-Martin and Sint Maarten

The island of Saint Martin is administered in the north by France, called Saint-Martin and in the South by the Netherlands, called Sint Maarten. The island’s total population is roughly 75,000.  At 33 square miles, it is roughly half the size of Washington, DC. As the LA Times reports, both sides of the island were devastated by Hurricane Irma:

The Franco-Dutch island of St. Martin suffered significant damage when Irma slammed into it Wednesday. An estimated 70% of the houses on the Dutch side of St. Martin were badly damaged or destroyed, Dutch officials reported Saturday. The French government said 95% of the French half of the island had been destroyed.

King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands and French President Emmanuel Macron reacted to the devastation by personally traveling to Saint Martin. King Willem Alexander first flew to Curaçao on Sunday before traveling to Sint Maarten. Since 2010, Sint Maarten has been an autonomous, constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

President Emmanuel Macron’s trip to Saint-Martin comes as criticism mounts over the government’s handling of the crisis, which included sending 1,000 troops, police, and emergency workers to Saint-Martin and the nearby islands of Saint Barts, known as Saint-Barthélemy in French.

Louis-Georges Tin, the spokesman for France’s Representative Council of Black Associations, was especially critical of the government’s response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma. As the Associated Press reports, Tin said that “Irma is for the French Antilles what Hurricane Katrina was for Louisiana in the U.S. – an exposer of racial and social inequalities.”

Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands

The United States’ only territories in the Caribbean faired very differently through Hurricane Irma. While Puerto Rico largely escaped the worst of the storm, the Virgin Islands took a near-direct hit, especially the islands of Saint Thomas and Saint John.

Stacey Plaskett, United States Representative from the Virgin Islands, spoke with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchel on Thursday, September 7, about the devastation. Congresswoman Plaskett said that Congressional leaders gave her “assurances … that the Virgin Islands will be looked at and they’re paying close attention to us.”

In addition to the government response to the damage in the Virgin Islands, ordinary Puerto Ricans are taking it upon themselves to assist their neighbors to the east. The New York Times describes a spontaneous “civilian sealift” delivering much-needed supplies to the islands.

Antigua and Barbuda

The island of Barbuda was devastated by Hurricane Irma, whereas the larger and more populous island of Antigua appears to have been largely spared from extensive damage. The Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda

The Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda spoke with CBC Radio-Canada after Irma had passed and described the devastation on Barbuda.

 It was total carnage. You know, they would have endured winds up to 230-miles-per-hour. And that itself created an unprecedented amount of damage in that Barbuda, to the extent that 90 per cent of the properties there were actually damage — many of them demolished. I would say that that was literally reduced to rubble — it looks like a major landfill — and that’s no exaggeration.

Prime Minister Browne went on to explain that since the residents of Barbuda do not own the land, it is unlikely that many of the residents had insurance to cover their immense losses. Given the near total destruction, Browne estimated that the cost to rebuild Barbuda will exceed $100 million, which he said is “certainly beyond the means of my government.”


The damage caused by Hurricane Irma will take years to rebuild. While aid money will come in from the United States, European nations, and the international community, the nations and territories in the Caribbean cannot simply rebuild everything that was destroyed. New infrastructure must be forward looking and take climate change into account.

As the temperatures in the Atlantic ocean rise, incredibly powerful storms like Irma will be increasingly more common. Without forward-thinking strategies to improve resilience on the Caribbean islands and a commitment from the international community to provide financial and technical resources, the horrible accounts of devastation and loss will be on the front page of newspapers again within a few short years.

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